After a lengthy debate, Town Meeting Thursday night voted down an article that would have moved into conservation land and instead approved an article to do a study on the land.
Oak Hill is a 66-acre parcel in North Chelmsford. Town officials said they need to know more about the land - whether or not it's buildable and if suitable pedestrian and vehicle access could be put in - before a decision is made to move it into conservation.
Oak Hill had been eyed by the Affordable Housing Plan as a potential spot for affordable housing.
At Town Meeting, Conservation Commission Chairman David McLachlan said Oak Hill was the top priority for the board to secure as conservation land. McLachland said 23 percent of the town is open space. His board manages about 849 acres of open space in town.
"Oak hill was our highest priority for conservation, and it’s the only land owned by the town. Once land is developed it's no longer available for conservation," he said. "Oak Hill, in the affordable housing plan, was eyed for housing. This can be addressed after we have secured the land. This should be conservation land."
In order to change the designation from conservation land to something out, the town's counsel said the the town would have to vote in favor of it with a 2/3 majority and petition the state legislature.
Town Meeting Rep Sam Poulten offered an amendment to the article to exclude the portion of Oak Hill already under contract for a potential billboard. Town Meeting reps OK'd the measure as a way to protect the town from litigation, just in case Town Meeting approved making Oak Hill conservation land.
George Merrill asked voters to approve the move to conservation.
"I don’t have a crystal ball but I can guarantee if you do a study, there will be affordable housing on this property, no question in my mind about that," he said. " ... It’s a good possibility the (Lowell Sportsmen's Club) would be closed down. It's very close proximity and if you put people and houses on there, the first time they hear guns go off they’ll be crying all over town that they don’t want the noise. If it's in conservation, it'll cost the taxpayers nothing forever."
Many Town Meeting reps said they didn't understand the rush to put the land into conservation without studying it first. Others said a study should be done for safety reasons, considering the Lowell Sportsmen's Club is so close.
Claire Jeanotte said the town could always make it conservation land after the study.
"I think we can always revisit it, we have a proven track record of open space in this town and I have a great deal of respect for the Chelmsford Open Space Stewards and the Conservation Commission and everyone who has worked to preserve open space," she said.